Emily Skinner and Katherine Faye Barry
Don’t be fooled by the musical masquerading at the City Center as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, because it is not. I am somewhat disappointed, if not all together unbelieving, that Betty Smith had a hand in turning her beloved, somewhat autobiographical, coming of age novel into this musical.
The third entry in the NY stage’s tribute to Brooklyn this year is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Very loosely based on the 1943 novel by Betty Smith, it tells the story of Johnny Nolan, a singing waiter who has a habit of drinking away his pay, and Katie Nolan, the wife left behind to provide for their daughter, Francie. Katie struggles as a cleaning lady in their apartment while Johnny is usually unemployed. Added to the plot is Katie’s unrelenting and unapologetic sister, Cissy, whose sole purpose is to attract laughs, which she does quite effectively. The “tree” referred to in Smith’s novel is Francie. In the musical, she has been pushed to the side as an afterthought and her brother, Neely, has been left out all together.
The musical, which premiered in 1951, is as old fashioned and romantic as they come, (it even has a dream ballet for goodness sake). There are a few noteworthy songs including, “Make the Man Love Me,” “I’m Like A New Broom,” “Refinement,” and “Growing Pains” which are all performed superbly.
Jason Danieley and Katherine Faye Barry sing “Growing Pains”
The problem lies not in the overly romantic score, but the plot, or lack their of, and the mostly one dimensional characters. The plot is so glaringly similar to Carousel. A good girl falls for the unreliable man who swears to do better. He doesn’t, leaving the girl to fend for herself. You could call it a clone of Carousel.
All that was good, heartwarming, and tragic from the book are all but gone from the plot. It speeds by so fast you can hardly recognize the few good parts. I smiled when little Francie told of her ambition to read every book in the library in alphabetical order. When Katie says the only two books her mother told her to read to Francie were Shakespeare and The Bible, and when Francie receives flowers from her father at her graduation. The one thing that did translate well is Johnny’s desire to do well and his love for his family. This is most obvious in the lovely “Growing Pains,” when Johnny sings to Francie about how she has grown. Cissy, who in the book is used as a sort of comic relief, is so farcical even for a musical. Missing is her sorrow. She has gone through a string of men (in the book are named John, but in the musical are named Harry – I think I know why) and has lost numerous children. Her depth and wisdom are gone.
Emily Skinner and John Ellison Conlee
The cast does an admirable job with what they are given. Jason Danieley has one of the loveliest voices I have heard in a long time, and I see why Katie falls for the charming Johnny. Sally Murphy is nice as Katie, even though her character was not given enough work to truly soar. I am happy to say that she sounded better here than in Fiddler on the Roof (maybe it’s the material). She particularly shines in “Make the Man Love Me.” Emily Skinner did a fine job stepping into the shoes of Shirley Booth (the original Cissy). That is no small feet. She is so likeable during “Refinement,” talking about Harry #1. I imagine she has a better singing voice that she shows in the role of Cissy though. John Ellison Conlee is simply a big teddy bear as Oscar (the last Harry), and Katherine Faye Barry is adorable as Francie even though she is way underused.
Overall, this would be a very likeable musical had it not come from such a better source. I can’t help but think of how much better it could have been. Perhaps in 1951, the musical theater world wasn’t ready to see a little girl struggle so much, but by not seeing the bad times they are missing the great part when she overcomes the obstacles. What a shame for them.